How to Record an Album Like Joe Ongie

Photo by Jeanne RiceEver wonder why the Renaissance ended? It was probably because a Renaissance man is so annoying. Look at Joe Ongie. He and his wife, Catherine Graziano, make the three Gypsy Dens the eclectic community hubs they are. There, Joe does everything from waiting tables to singing to booking puppet shows to tearing out drywall and fixing plumbing leaks. He doesn't just paint walls, but also vibrant portraits. He plays a bajillion different musical instruments, has gigged with the greats of the Largo scene, and has produced a number of albums for others. And then every year or two, he emerges from his fortress of solitude/recording studio with a little masterpiece of a solo album, where Joe's songs are never so full of rich wordplay or baroque sonic texturing as to obscure the soaring pop melodies at their heart, the son of a bitch. Did I mention that he even does the self-deprecating bit really well, so you can't even really resent his talents?

All this can be a little daunting for those of us whose idea of a fulfilling day is one with a Columbo episode we haven't already seen.

Should you aspire to his irksome level of accomplishment, Joe let us into his Santa Ana studio to show how he does his recording. His new Critical Darling album, due in early December (he'll be debuting its songs Nov. 28 at the Santa Ana Gypsy Den) is his first recorded entirely on a computer. He has been recording his own albums ever since doing his now-vintage Pilgrim Soul album in a pro studio, when the novelty of signing a $400 check over to the studio every day wore thin well before he hit the $11,000 total cost.

His first home recordings were done in the days of Teac four-track reel-to-reels. He progressed to a Fostex, then to an ADAT (digital audio tape) system. For $200 per month, he rented a small industrial space "with incredibly bad sound, like a paper cup echo," which he mollified by hanging drapes and other deadening material over every surface.

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"I only had one eight-track ADAT when I recorded my Cuckold album," Joe says. "I'd fill up the eight tracks, run the machine over to a friend's who had three ADAT machines, where I'd dupe the eight tracks down onto one track, take that home, fill up the other seven tracks, and repeat this process until I'd done the whole 24-track album like that. Doing it that way, I didn't even know what I had until I did the final mix-down. It was pretty old-school that way."

After also recording his Love Fest album on ADAT, he got a Steinberg Cubase digital recording-studio program, run on a Mac G4. The Cubase program he uses cost about $600, and you can get an iMac now for about $1,000 with more power than Joe's G4, lucky you.

"That is one of the downsides, watching the system you invested in quickly become obsolete by newer, cheaper systems with more power," he says. "But on the upside, just changing to a format where I didn't have to rewind tape was worth the price of the system alone. To be able to record from any point you want in a track without all that winding adds years to your life."

It also suited his insular, intensive style of recording that you can do as many precision edits on your recording as you like. Though he usually mixes down from 16 to 20 final tracks, he records more like six times that many. If there's a banjo on a song, chances are he recorded five or more takes, and then edits down the best sections of each into an idealized composite track.

"If this was done on a tape recorder, that would be equal to hundreds of little razor-blade splice edits. That's the other real benefit of this way of recording: you can make a seamless, endless number of edits. Here, I'll show you this because I have no shame," he says, playing a vocal snippet he'd cobbled together from three different takes just to get three words the way he wanted them.

The rest of Joe's recording setup consists of a Motu digital audio interface (units range from $100 to $700, depending on features) and a tube preamp (his Drawmer 1960 was $1,000 used, but you can get a serviceable ART for less than $100. The idea of a tube preamp is it helps warm up the otherwise chilly sound of digital). He has racks of sound-modifying equipment—compressors, reverbs and such—that sit unused.

"I could get rid of every piece of outboard equipment in here because it's all in the computer now, usually in a better-sounding version. The Cubase program comes with lots of effects, and you can buy other ones to add in," he says. "There also are internal instruments, so, for example, I can call up a synthesizer or mellotron in the program and record what I need, rather than have to own and store all these different instruments."

Having messed with some of these programs where you can get lost in a labyrinth of reverbs, choosing not just the shape and size of the cyber environment but also the building materials and how many treble-deadening bodies are in the cyberseats, I asked if there aren't just too many choices and parameters in there.

"Yeah, no, only because, well, I mean maybe," Joe says. "I've been working on this album for two years, so maybe there are. With some of these effects where they get so deep into it, I don't even understand them, so I take things pretty much at their default settings and see how I can make them sound good. But there are parts, like a kick drum sound, that I might keep tweaking for months."

We talked some more gear talk: get good monitor speakers like Yamaha NS-10Ms that don't color the sound; get a cheap Shure SM-57 mic for recording guitar amps and snare drums, as well as a good condenser mic for vocals. "The best thing with all this stuff is to read up on it, see what other people are using, and take a guess and buy what you can afford. It's usually better to buy something that's an industry standard than some weird thing. I played in bands where guys would show up with custom basses with preamps and all these knobs, and they'd sound like crap. They had everything but the good sound you get out of a P-bass.

"You can also only spend so much time worrying about gear," Joe says. "Just buy the best you can afford and learn to work with it. A good microphone is important, but it's more important to have a good song and play it well. You can put a Walkman in front of someone good, and it will be better than someone dull with the best microphone in the world."

The Ongie way of making a record starts with the song, which he typically imagines in finished form while he's writing it. "Once I've worked out the basics of structure and length, I'll have a drummer friend come over, and I'll play guitar and sing into a microphone while he records his part. Since I'm putting this together piece by piece, the goal is to start with something where my energy gets rubbed off on him, so we have an interplay as two musicians and he comes up with a part that has life to it. Once there's a good take, I start layering stuff over it, which can take two years. I may do all the parts or have friends in for particular things."

He'll mix in a sample of Larry Storch playing the Groovy Guru on Get Smart for the five people who'll notice. Sometimes he'll spend hours digitally re-contouring the sound of every single snare drum thwack on a song, but his intent is for the finished product to sound like real people playing live.

For someone who professes to love that interplay, it's a lonely way to make music.

"If you're playing with someone else, it may be imperfect, but there's a magic of the performance between you that makes up for the imperfections," he says. "That's better any day than doing this. But this has a certain baroque, doing-a-crossword-puzzle quality to it, which is very pleasurable. It's like painting, where you layer things atop each other, building up to a final product. And like painting, it's solitary work."

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